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Casemiro emerges as Brazil’s unsung hero

As he has been doing here, Tite fixed a steely gaze on the journalist but instead of answering asked “what’s your name.” The Brazil head coach then said normally he did not comment on other people’s opinions but “today I will make an exception.” A pause later he said: “I agree.”

In the windowless press conference room of a stadium built with containers, this conversation could have gone any way. Gerardo Martino and Lionel Scaloni have had disagreements at press conferences and Carlos Queiroz has asked why he gets grilled more than other coaches on matters not relating to football. Tite too corrected a questioner saying it was “we” and not the head coach who had fashioned the 2-0 win against Serbia.

So Tite’s first reaction, when he had been asked if he agreed with Neymar Jr’s comment on social media that Casemiro is the world’s best midfielder now, was intriguing. The answer was anything but.

Brazil have brought a squad to Doha fizzing with attacking talent. There are nine attacking players including three who can play No. 9. Among them is Neymar a player, in Tite’s words, who can change the course of a game alone. “In a magical moment, he can dribble past leaving you wondering what happened,” said Tite after the 1-0 win against Switzerland on Monday.

Yet it could be difficult to pick anyone other than Casemiro, who minutes earlier had said his “first objective is to defend, to put out the fire”, as Brazil’s most consistent player in this World Cup. His excellent shot in the 83rd minute broke a determined Switzerland – I couldn’t have done anything about it, said Switzerland goalkeeper Yann Sommer in the mixed zone – but it wasn’t just because of that.

Casemiro hit the framework against Serbia; he described his attacking moves as a chance to take “little kicks on goal.” One of them came in Champions League final in 2017. He is always there trying to head home from set-pieces –Chelsea know how well he can do that – his ability to pass the ball to Brazil’s attacking players is commendable and none of this comes at the expense of his primary responsibility. If Allison has not had to make a save in over 180 minutes here, it is because Casemiro has been good in his position.

Caesar Sampaio, whose goals in the 1998 World Cup helped Brazil reach the final, said: “Casemiro can surprise from the back.” The former defensive midfielder is here as one of Tite’s assistant. “Casemiro is the first filter,” said Sampaio. “But he can also shoot from distance so in his position he is a worldwide reference point.”

It explains why Manchester United spent £70m on him in the summer. Real Madrid are building for the future so they let Casemiro, who along with Luka Modric and Toni Kroos ran their midfield, go. Manchester United’s attempt to get Frenkie de Jong was going nowhere and though they are not like-for-like, the club bid for Casemiro. Erik ten Hag’s rebuild needed leaders and Casemiro, 30, is known to be one.

There were those who felt Manchester United had again erred by signing a player who was 30; the failed experiment of Bastian Schweinsteiger fresh in their minds. While Real were looking ahead by signing Eduardo Camavinga and Aurelien Tchouameni, was it wise for United to end their search for a commanding midfielder since Michael Carrick retired with the Brazilian? The debate didn’t take long to end. In his first Premier League start, Casemiro won Player of the Match.

“It is a pleasure to play against him,” Switzerland midfielder Granit Xhaka said referring to their duels for club and country. “Five Champions League titles! I wish he didn’t score against us.”

What also works for Casemiro is the level of understanding he has with his international teammates. He and Fred play for the same club and were regulars in central midfield in the 2021 Copa America where Brazil lost 0-1 to Argentina in the final. Rodrygo, a half-time substitute on Monday who provided the assist, and Vinicius Jr were his mates at Real and Antony is at United. So “the second midfielder”, in Sampaio’s words, knows enough about Brazil’s wide players to get his passes more right than wrong. “When teams defend deep it is my job to find the wingers,” said Casemiro.

It was Casemiro who found Vinicius against Switzerland for a goal that was ruled offside. And it was he and Fred who prevented Switzerland from attacking down the middle.

While Richarlison, who had a quiet game on Monday, had spoken at length about how good he had felt after scoring against Serbia, Casemiro preferred speaking about the collective. “They have to choose a Man of the Match but this is about a group. It was important that I could assist the team,” he said before nearly leaving the room without his trophy.

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